July 2008

Q. Besides compliance with legislation or standards which govern Internet accessibility, are there any business reasons for maintaining an accessible website?

A. While compliance is generally viewed in negative terms, compliance can provide business opportunities. Before discussing the opportunities, we'll provide a quick overview of the potential market and existing legislation.

Because of the many types of disabilities and the varying degrees of severity, it is difficult to obtain accurate numbers on the number of disabled persons. Estimated statistics include:

  • 19.4% of non-institutionalized civilians in the United States
  • 12% of Canadians and somewhere between 5% and 30% of Canadian children
  • the United Nations estimates that there are at least 650 million persons with disabilities worldwide

For those with a disability, the scope of the Internet technology (IT) problem goes beyond access to websites to any IT used in the creation, conversion or duplication of data or information. This includes, but is not limited to: fax machines, photocopiers, automated banking machines, telephones, and multimedia.

Legislation regarding equal access does exist. North American examples include:

With regards to Internet accessibility standards, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) updated their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) in April, 2008. The United Nations has published The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.

Despite the number of disabled persons and existing standards, much of the IT world remains inaccessible. In December, 2006, the United Nations commissioned an audit on Internet accessibility for persons with disabilities. Of the 100 websites evaluated during the audit, only three achieved the basic accessibility rating.

The 1999 Understanding the Digital Economy conference noted that "As we examine the civil rights requirements for access and fairness, note the additional benefits that accrue: by mainstreaming the functionality found in the assistive computer arena into the architecture of our digital economy, we will expand technological innovations and develop creative solutions. By embracing our individual differences, the collective community receives greater benefits than that achieved through the segregation and isolation of people with disabilities."

By realizing these untapped markets, business opportunities begin to appear. IT consultants can assess, redesign, build and implement WCAG 2.0 compliant websites and retrofit government kiosks. IT companies can generate niche solutions meeting the market for adaptative technologies. There is an entire market segment that requires affordable devices using open projects such as Open Prosthetics and Tackle Design.

A robust and strong digital economy requires the removal of barriers through the deployment of accessible design elements on our computers, information technology and communications. By directing our research and policy directives to address these problems, we will overcome the digital divide and ensure full participation in the global digital economy.

Recommended Resources

Accessibility in the Virtual Workplace: Opportunities and Challenges

Industry Canada's Assistive Technology Links

Human Resources and Social Development Canada: Disability Issues

Universal Instructional Design

Ontario Accessibility Directory

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